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Amish investment broker declines to enter plea to fraud charges during hearing in federal court in Youngstown on Astini News

Updated 5:30 p.m.

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- Citing moral and religious concerns, Amish investment broker Monroe Beachy declined to swear to tell the truth, and refused to enter a plea in federal court Thursday to charges he defrauded thousands of investors out of nearly $17 million.

On the advice of his lawyer, Beachy, 78, of Sugarcreek, decided not to follow through with his original intention to plead no contest to the fraud charge - a crime that could send him to prison for up to 20 years, if he is convicted.

Little about what transpired at the 45-minute hearing in U.S. District Court went according to procedure. Beachy, who has been dubbed the "Amish Bernie Madoff," arrived with a dozen family members and church supporters, all dressed in the traditional clothing of the Plain People. The bearded men lined up their broad-brimmed hats on a shelf in the hallway. The women in bonnets sat together on a bench, separate from their husbands, waiting for the hearing to begin.

Beachy, sporting a snow white shock of hair and a full beard, immediately complained that his poor hearing prevented him from understanding Judge Benita Pearson. So they provided him headphones.

When Pearson told Beachy to raise his right hand and swear to tell the truth, he quickly responded: "Excuse me, I do not swear." Instead, he agreed to affirm his honesty.

When the judge asked Beachy how he pleaded to the charge, he balked again: "I respectfully decline to enter a plea at this time."

Beachy and his Amish supporters clearly were uncomfortable in this hall of strict protocol and longstanding traditions. His defense lawyer, Gerry Ingram of Youngstown, felt compelled to remind the Amish men and women to stand when the judge entered and exited the courtroom.

Most of the Amish don't drive cars; this group hired a van to transport them. Several of Beachy's supporters said they would have preferred to settle their differences with Beachy within the Amish community and apart from the U.S. justice system.

"We don't prefer it," said Raymond Troyer, a Beachy creditor and deacon at his church in Holmes County. "But we want to help and support each other."

Beachy, the father of six children, told Pearson he never finished 9th Grade. He faces a bankruptcy case in Akron, where he has claimed several hundred thousand dollars in assets, and $70,000 in debts - plus the millions he still owes his creditors.

From 1990 to 2010, Beachy raised an estimated $33 million from 2,600 investors - many of them Amish from Holmes and Tuscarawas counties. According to federal prosecutors, he assured investors their money was safe with him. But he actually invested the millions in risky stocks, mutual funds and junk bonds, and lost $16.8 million.

Prosecutors charged that Beachy had set up a Ponzi scheme similar to the one used by Bernard Madoff, who cheated investors out of an estimated $18 billion - the largest investment swindle in U.S. history.

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